Veneto: Natale in Italia, Terza Parte / Christmas in Italy, Part 3

The kids and I woke up at the very civil hour of 8:30 on Wednesday morning, but Jason had already had his coffee and left. I assumed he had gone to the gommista for new snow tires, as he had been talking about it the past few days, while keeping a nervous eye on the weather.

A flurry of texts from him after we were up and about confirmed as much, indicating that his situation had become ever more compromised as he stood in line with about twenty Italians at one of the only open gommista in town. Everyone was worried about the weather. Everyone wanted new snow tires. There was no room to haggle, much less converse. Signore Gommista was smiling as he made a fine profit that day, the best day to sell snow tires: December 27 as half the city emptied out to head north to enjoy snow concurrent with a winter storm warning.

I tried to mitigate total apartment destruction and pack for me and the kids until Jason returned home, annoyed but reassured.
“You don’t even want to know how much I spent,” he muttered.
“I actually do,” I said. Not out of any penny pinch but more morbid curiosity.
“He said he could not sell me chains for the tires because the chains would not fit in the wheelcase.”
“Oh?”
“But the fee also includes off-season tire storage.”
“Oh.”
We were still trying to pack and organize as the kids zoomed around in high spirits.
“I’ll tell you later,” he said, “how much.”

We herded the team down to the car, along with a collection of suitcases, toy bags, snack bags, diaper bags … we are very much in the Napoleonic army mode of travel. Staging everything in the foyer until Jason could bring the car around from the other side of the piazza, we watched the rain fall on the wet flagstones in front of the palazzo. We quickly shoveled all small people, bags, and accoutrements into our wagon, and got on the road under grey clouds. Eleanor fell asleep quickly, before the A1 autostrada split into ‘panoramica’ and ‘direttissima.’ This drive is always a challenge for me, because the route between Firenze and Bologna is twisting and steep, tunneling through the Apennines. I typically am a shade of green, well before Bologna. But the grey skies and ruta diretissima worked in my favor, and when we emerged before Bologna I was feeling fine. The flat plain of Emilia Romagna rolled out before us, under more clouds and rain. In fact, the rain never stopped.

As we crossed over into the Veneto, the rain picked up. Victor and Eleanor chattered in the back seat. We turned north to climb into the Dolomites, and saw the waterfalls coming off the mountains were forming large icicles and walls of ice. “Oooh, pretty,” we cooed. Infrequent vertical ice gave way to freezing rain, then heavy snowflakes. We were nowhere near our final destination, and it was getting dark fast. Snow started sticking to the ground, first as a low cover, then in larger mounds. The climb was no joke, either. Every few kilometers felt like we gained another one to two hundred meters. This was like driving the highway in Colorado, where you turn south from I-70 because someone in the car thought it would be fun to drive to Leadville. The road was blasted out of solid rock.

Fortunately, we were driving north, so we had the inside lane that was not covered in ice leading to a 600-meter spill and a quick death. Jason kept the car in second and took the turns slowly as my palms began to sweat. I started to feel like one of those Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” stories that I used to read at my grandma’s house as a kid, where the mom capriciously tosses a box of Nilla Wafers into the trunk just before they set out on a roadtrip that will evolve into a struggle for life. I mentally catalogued the contents of our snack bag.

Victor and Eleanor began to bicker. I asked them to hush, but Jason set his jaw and said it was better, that he preferred background noise when driving like this. It felt like a bit of divine retribution, or at least a Campbellian test, for a person who had been celebrating the successful passage of his written Italian driver’s test just a week before. “Maybe we should go back to Belluno and stay there, instead,” he said under his breath.

We rolled into Forno a Zoldo, a small town with a uniformed Protezione Civile officer at the one intersection, holding a lollipop. She was watching out for all the drivers on this dark, snowy night out on the SP 251.

We waited in line with a few other stopped cars as she lollipopped through drivers with chains on their tires. Jason rolled down the window and she stuck her head in.

“You got chains?”
“No,” Jason replied.
“Is this car 4×4?”
“No.”
She shrugged. “Then you can’t pass.”
“We have a reservation in Santa Fosca.”
She shrugged again.
“I just bought these new snow tires today.”
She rolled her eyes. “Look, if you want to try it, and I do NOT recommend it, but leaving town here is a steep hill with a sharp curve. If you slide, turn around and come straight back; you won’t ever make it to Santa Fosca. But if you can make it up that hill, continue, and with care.”

We thanked her and drove away from the intersection, up the hill, up up up, and around the steep curve, still in second. We did not slip.

So we continued. It got darker, and the snow was blowing hard. The road was not good. This was a major winter storm even for the locals. The twisting mountain road was hard to discern in the headlights and the driving snow. We climbed, and climbed, hairpin after hairpin, and the weather got worse, and worse.

“How far back is Forno?” I asked.
“It’s been about four miles,” Jason replied. It felt like at least ten miles to me.
I could not believe we were doing this.
Jason continued to round the hairpins in second at increasing elevations.
Victor and Eleanor had stopped talking.
“Daddy, how much further is it?” Victor finally said in a small voice.
“A ways, guys. A ways.”
I intermittently monitored the max defrost button, which raised the temperature in the car to something like 100F. The ice accumulated quickly.

Finally, we reached the Passo di Staulanza, just after a town amusingly named Dont. It was a dismal scene. Snow was blowing sideways in sheets across the road. The signage indicated that six steep turns lay ahead before we arrived in our valley. The first turn was easy enough, but we fishtailed on the second one. I was trying hard to remain calm without much success. We made it safely down the next four turns, in first and second gear, without slippage. Finally we saw the lights of Pescul, and, just beyond it, our destination: Santa Fosca.

The roads were a mess. The snow had been falling so fast that no plow could keep up with it. We saw our first turnoff, and immediately got stuck, so backed out.

We continued forward. I started to whimper, “please let’s just call the hotel and explain to them what is happening.” But Jason was resolute. Our turnoff appeared again under the same name on a subsequent right, which we were able to access, although the ascent was steep and the road a lumpy, snowy mess.

We finally pulled into our hotel. It was still snowing hard.
“I wish we had taken this holiday in Sicily,” I grumbled. Jason laughed.

He got out of the car. The kids were still wearing their Florentine clothes.
“Where’s the big bag of their winterwear?” he asked me from the back.
“Their what?” I said.
“A huge bag of their winterwear.”
“It’s all in the suitcase,” I said.
“No, there is a huge bag … oh my god did we leave it at home.”

Apparently, we had. We carried the kids in their city clothes down into the hotel. Jason immediately made a trip out to buy them boots and gloves. I declined his offer to purchase boots for me, saying that mine were super and I loved them. Some of the wint
erwear was, in fact, in their suitcase; just not all of it. The critical pieces remained in our foyer in Florence in a huge recyclable shopping bag.

The kids now fully bundled, we trudged back down the snowy hill to a gastronomia for dinner. I slipped on the packed snow and bent my right wrist back and hard, cursing my boots for their lack of tread, making mental note to buy myself a new pair promptly the next morning.

Kids trotting off to the gastronomia in the storm.

Eleanor, initially irate at the snowpants situation, realized on the walk down the hill how incredible snow is. She’d never seen it before. Victor, ever the big brother, commented, “I’ve seen snow, but it didn’t look like this.” You got that right, kid.

Mom and dad had an adult beverage each while the kids devoured pizza and French fries. The gastronomia staff were sympathetic and doting, speaking in an accent and dialect that I could only guess.

We headed back into our snug, warm hotel room and quickly fell asleep after a trip from Firenze that had turned out to be much more than we’d bargained for.

In the end, we both agreed that the 700 euros for the ultra high performance snow tires had been well worth it.

We watched the storm continue from our balcony after we checked in.
The total snowfall was well over a foot.

There are more relaxing aspects of our days in Santa Fosca that I will record next for my reading public. Tomorrow we head to Austria, for more snow and sledding. Hopefully the drive will be a fraction as harrowing.

Firenze: Natale in Italia, Seconda Parte / Christmas in Italy, Part 2

Thursday morning: “My entire face hurts,” I groaned after I woke up. I then began to whimper.
“I do not know how I am going to make it through this weekend and the holidays, plus our trip.”
My sinuses were killing me. Italy and my sinuses are in a long-term quarrel. I never had these problems before I had kids, or before we lived in Italy.
Now, I am in a low-grade sinus threat zone almost very day, and the slightest cold transmitted from school via our small children will trigger the congestion, odd squeaking, headache, and the worst, aching cheeks. Nothing induces incoherence like a sinus infection. I barely make sense. I have been in an out of this condition since the second week of November. My immune system and I are exhausted.

Nebulizing, painkiller, decongestant, Zithromax, saline, steamy showers – it is the Maginot Line of health, a daily struggle to maintain the razor-thin advantage. The low valley of Arno River, how it grows and keeps layers of fog and damp, nothing ever dries out, and the cold, when it is damp, seems to puddle in the dark narrow streets that pick their way through tightly packed stone buildings. At night, I try to stay warm by wearing socks and slippers to bed, and a knee-length wool cardigan, and a scarf, while lying atop a faux sheepskin.

“Do we have any more of that Sudafed?” I asked Jason.
“What?” he said.
I sighed, and tried to not cry.
“I found, like, a big white pellet yesterday and took it, and it really worked. But I cannot find any more of it.”
Jason disappeared into the back of the apartment. I could hear him ruffling through the shelves of over the counter medicine from the US.

He reemerged with the empty Sudafed box and some blister packs.
“Take this,” he said. They were the little red pills he has been known to eat like cat food, as a man permanently and mildly congested. “Take it with an acetominophen, it is the same thing as the so-called ‘bug white pellet.'” He shook his head in sympathy. Fortunately this month I had just brought back a huge bottle of acetominophen from the US.

A few hours later I was feeling much more myself. I did some Christmas shopping on my lunch break. Florence has been flooded with sunshine, and it was a pleasure to be outside, among the smaller holiday crowds of tourists, the large Christmas trees on every public square, local shops open and bustling.

Friday we had a much-postponed lunch date with Maria, who teaches at Gonzaga in Florence, and whose parents own the building where we rent our spacious apartment. I am always grateful for her company; she is an international Florentine par excellence, having lived in the Los Angeles, Ankara, Nairobi, and Muscat, now back in Florence with her husband and two small children to complete the extended family puzzle, much to her parents’ delight. I appreciate her cross-cultural agility; she is a trusted local (deeply local) of whom I might ask any complicated or perplexing cultural question.

Maria’s brother owns a b&b here, and so is up on the nice new places to eat. We headed to Trattoria Tiberio on Via delle Ruote, arriving just before the lunch rush, and feasted on a generous pranzo. I had a plate of rigatoni alla baccala mantecata (cod in cream sauce – a Venetian speciality) that may have changed my life. I always try to order items off a menu that I know I cannot make at home. This was precisely the kind of dish that makes me thankful, though, for a glass of red wine with lunch. I’m relieved to be well off the Dr. Pepper planet that is the American Midwest.

I recounted my health struggle to Maria, who empathized, as a mother of kids the same ages as ours. “You should take this vitamin I am taking!” she exclaimed. “It makes me feel like Asterix! Giulio and the kids were sick, and I did not even get sick!” She took a picture and sent it to me. I got the effervescent vitamins at my favorite farmacia on Via della Condotta and immediately started on them.

Asterix the Gaul, vanquishing germs!

Christmas eve day dawned on Sunday and the children bubbled with excitement: “Babbo ‘Tale, Babbo ‘Tale!” chanted Eleanor. I had committed to serving at mass at St. James and so was out the door on my bike by 10:30. I had expected few people, but there was instead a decent crowd. As I was the lone acolyte, I got firsthand experience carrying the enormous wood-and-metal crucifer up the aisle and manipulating various large things at the altar throughout the liturgy (crucifer, huge wooden Gospel cover, the main chalice..) After counting the collection plate and passing it along to the sacristan, I was flying back home in the freezing air on my bike.

Emily, one of our favorite locals, came at two so that Jason and I could go to his office and wrap the gifts in peace. I’ll let you guess who wrapped. No complaints – it is one of life’s great pleasures for me. In the nineties, when I worked at the now-defunct Borders, I was the dedicated gift wrapper, and I loved it. I can crease a corner with the best of them, eyeball sizes, use tape sparingly, tie ribbon expertly.

Jason made an emergency trip home on bike to pick up another bag of small gifts we had forgotten. We were done in a little over an hour. I curled up on the small sofa in Jason’s office as the Christmas jazz played, drew both our coats over me, hid my face behind a pashmina, and slid off for an hour of warmth into the sweetest, most delicious nap I can remember for years.

Back to St. James for 6 pm Christmas eve mass with the kids. We took over a back pew with all our outerwear and toys. This was good for play purposes, but less than ideal for attention holding. The Sunday school provided a pageant, the choir sang, we muddled through it somehow. I made multiple pacifying trips to the undercroft with Eleanor, who gave excessive attention to the two rescue Yorkies in the kitchen keeping company with the wife of the priest, who was preparing the generous spread for dozens. And generous it was: prosecco and antipasti, nero d’avola and primi and secondi and contorni, sweets and coffee and more prosecco (if you are ever in town when St. James is celebrating something, first, you will know it because of me, but secondly, go – do not decline the opportunity to toast special occasions with Episcopalians in Tuscany, a divine pairing!) We said our goodbyes and bundled the kids into the car to head home.

Back at home, Victor begged to go to bed.
“Can I go to bed now? Can I go to bed now?” he asked at the preposterous hour of nine, hoping to hasten the arrival of Babo ‘Tale.
Jason shooed him off to his bunnk where he quickly fell asleep; Eleanor talked and tossed with me until almost 11.

Amazingly, they slept in until after eight. I remember Christmas mornings rising at 5 or 5:30 to hawk on gifts until my parents woke up and got into the living room. Babbo ‘Tale was very generous to us this year and we took our time in turns opening the gifts.

Excitement overtakes our Christmas elves.

Victor was thrilled with his Pokemon take. Eleanor received awesome Frozen and Rapunzel and baby dolls, as well as a small piano and mic for her singalongs.

Good luck getting in on this action.

Our Christmas day appointment was special indeed: we were to go to Flavia’s house in Arezzo to eat with her extended family, and would round out a group of 25 for the meal. When we arrived they all crowded at the door to greet us. Jason had not yet met the Gramacioni (I knew them all), and we were soon warmly enclosed in their family fold, a fire blazing in the heart behind the table. Flavia’s father knows his way around a kitchen, to put it mildly. Their warm home in Arezzo is truly our home away from home when we are in Italy.

A phenomenal meal was rolled out before us: crostini al fegato, tortellini al brodo, bollito (boiled meat) with all the sauces, lentils with sausage, a contorno of crudites (carrots, seared artichokes, radishes) and a braised sort of Tuscan coq au vin that also involved pomegranate seeds and juniper. Wine both Spanish and Italian flowed freely from the kitchen. When a course particularly pleased the table, spontaneous applause erupted; diners jovially shouted compliments from the far end of the table. Flavia’s ninety-year-old grandma praised me effusively for my handsome husband, beautiful children, and youthful mien; I love it when the nonne clasp your hands when they talk. Both her grandparents were especially appreciative of our kids’ Italian and excellent table manners and social grace.

“This broth can speak!” Flavia exclaimed to my left, as Massimo on my right shared his broth secrets with Jason.

Eleanor received special recognition for sitting in her chair and eating two adult-sized portions of the meat tortellini with fresh cheese on top. Victor and Eleanor were the only children present, but they were roundly doted on by every adult in the house.

After we ate with leisure our four or five plates of dinner, the liquors and sweets rolled out, pannettone and ricarelli and a panna cotta alla frutta di bosco, panforte and more, and all manner of grappa and mirto to wash it all down. The meal, though long, flew by among the hospitable company, as we chatted with Paola and Massimo, and Flavia’s Zia Laura and Zia Grazia, who exclaimed, “Monica, where do you and Jason put all that food, you have eaten everything, and you are both so slender!” I laughed and tried to explain what my typical Monday through Friday schedule is like – molto fretta, sempre in ritardo – always rushing, always late, I said.

But the party was far from over. The fire was refuelled. We repaired to the living room for a gift exchange. We had brought just a few treats for Flavia’s parents. The gift exchange was by preassigned pairs, and packages and gift bags flew across the center of the circle for at least an hour. Victor and Eleanor received another generous slew of gifts. As their energy started to flag, we slowly began to say our Arrivederci. Eleanor didn’t last ten minutes in the car, in spite of an initial bitter dispute over who got to hold Victor’s new Nintendo 2Ds in the backseat. We arrived home in the dark, full, warm, and content.

I miss seeing our family in the US, but am comforted by the fact that we have such good friends and community here to welcome us as a family into their homes and traditions.

Tomorrow, we are driving far north, until the pink sawteeth of the Dolomites become the horizon, and then our narrow foreground, meeting up there with the Zambon family. We will then continue on to Austria for capodanno – New Year.